There is perhaps no more iconic a detective than Sherlock Holmes, a keenly observant sleuth with remarkable deductive reasoning skills. Although he was first introduced by creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1887 novel A Study in Scarlet and appeared in three other books, Holmes may be best remembered as the star of 56 short stories. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892) was the earliest collection of the short fiction, with 12 tales of Holmes and colleague Dr. Watson solving crimes and attempting to right social wrongs. The duo encounter everything from a Bohemian king on a quest to recover a racy photograph to a governess working a dodgy job.
Here’s more on both Holmes and those formative first cases, which Esquire once dubbed “the best, most romantic, and most intelligent of them all.”
1. Arthur Conan Doyle believed Sherlock Holmes would give him some job security.
Following the novels A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four, Doyle sought to place Holmes in what would become his natural literary habitat: the short story. He believed that the character would be a fine fit for a magazine like The Strand because a magazine’s audience would be eager to read the continuing (but largely disconnected) adventures of a single character. If that proved true, then Doyle himself would be guaranteed gainful employment.
“A number of monthly magazines were coming out at that time, notable among which was The Strand, under the very capable editorship of Greenhough Smith,” Doyle wrote in 1924. “Considering these various journals with their disconnected stories it had struck me that a single character running through a series, if it only engaged the attention of the reader, would bind that reader to that particular magazine … Looking around for my central character, I felt that Sherlock Holmes, who I had already handled in two little books, would easily lend himself to a succession of short stories.”
Doyle was, of course, correct: Readers of The Strand were so invested in Holmes that when Doyle killed the character off in 1893, roughly 20,000 of them cancelled their subscriptions.
2. The first (short) Sherlock Holmes mystery is really no mystery at all.
Doyle’s first Holmes story for The Strand, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” was published in July 1891, and it offers no mystery at all. Instead, Holmes acts as a kind of retriever: The King of Bohemia calls upon the detective to collect a photograph of the king with his former paramour, opera singer Irene Adler, which Adler has her in possession. Though the detective has all the pertinent details—he knows the photo might be used for blackmail and knows Adler has it—he’s still unable to outwit Adler. Thus, his first short-form appearance is a bit of a failure. And while Adler would go on to make multiple appearances in Holmes adaptations, “A Scandal in Bohemia” marks her only full appearance in the Doyle stories. (Her name is mentioned in a few others.)
3. Sherlock Holmes was inspired by a real person.
Doyle based the character of Sherlock Holmes at least in part on Dr. Joseph Bell, a surgeon and professor at Edinburgh’s Royal College of Surgeons. Doyle, his student, was captivated by Bell's observational acuity and ability to diagnose illnesses with just a few clues. Bell also studied handwriting analysis and dialectology (the art of identifying one’s origin by their words and accent), which added to his diagnostic powers.
“[Edgar Allan] Poe's masterful detective, M. Dupin, had from boyhood been one of my heroes,” Doyle wrote in Collier’s Magazine in 1923. “But could I bring an addition of my own? I thought of my old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his curious ways, of his eerie trick of spotting details. If he were a detective, he would surely reduce this fascinating but unorganized business to something nearer an exact science ... such examples as Bell gave us every day in the wards.”
4. Sherlock Holmes was the first fictional sleuth to use a magnifying glass.
When he first whips out his magnifying glass in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes became the first detective in a work of fiction to use one on a case. Magnifying glasses had been used for hundreds of years in microscopy and allowed scholars to observe the world more closely. With magnifying lenses, scientists could form theories using evidence that was not visible with the naked eye.
Doyle, as a practicing physician, knew all about the use of microscopy in medicine. When he put the magnifying glass into Holmes’s hands, he signaled to readers that the detective would make scientific observations of the crime scenes and solve cases based on the evidence.
The glass also shows up in “The Red-Headed League” in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: “The solemn Mr. Merryweather perched himself upon a crate, with a very injured expression upon his face, while Holmes fell upon his knees upon the floor, and, with the lantern and a magnifying lens, began to examine minutely the cracks between the stones.”
5. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was banned in the Soviet Union.
While Holmes is generally perceived as beloved around the world, his earliest short fiction collection found little love in the USSR. When The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was about to be printed in the former Soviet Union in 1929, Russian officials put the hammer (and sickle) down. The problem? Doyle depicted occultism, which was prohibited by the Russian government at the time. Such was Holmes’s appeal that his adventures continued to circulate on the black market. Russia eventually relented and lifted the ban in 1940.
6. Sherlock Holmes is the most-depicted literary character.
Sherlock Holmes holds the Guinness World Record as the “most-portrayed human literary character” in television and film, with 299 depictions when the organization last counted in 2015. In 1899, American actor William Gillette collaborated with Doyle on the first official Holmes play, titled Sherlock Holmes, which Gillette starred in; the actor introduced several motifs that are now synonymous with Holmes, including the deerstalker cap, curved pipe, and cloak (though cloaks and deerstalkers did make appearances in some early illustrations of Doyle’s stories). Actors Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce enjoyed a long string of movies playing Holmes and Watson, respectively, in the 1940s. More recently, Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. have played the famed sleuth. But Holmes isn’t the most-portrayed of any literary character—that record belongs to Dracula.
7. Sherlock Holmes never actually says “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
The detective has become a subject of the Mandela Effect—a phenomenon in which people collectively misremember things like famous phrases. Holmes often calls his devoted sidekick “my dear Watson,” and describes his amazing powers of deduction and talent for solving cases as “elementary.” But in the original four novels and 56 stories, Holmes never puts the two phrases together. In Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Crooked Man,” Holmes says both “my dear Watson” and then a few sentences later “Elementary,” but not the full phrase.
Some historians point to a 1929 film, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, as the first instance in which Holmes speaks the full phrase, but others note the expression was being used and parodied from at least 20 years prior. Swedish Sherlockian Mattias Boström, author of From Holmes to Sherlock (2013), suspects William Gillette as the source of the phrase as well, though actual hard evidence is lacking.